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Pardon, Punishment and Presumption

Category Articles
Date January 17, 2004

Kobe Bryant picked up a four million dollar diamond ring this week. As you probably know, this Los Angeles Lakers star basketball player recently admitted to adultery and is charged with worse. He has publicly apologized to his wife, and she has said she will stand by him. It is hard to think of the four million dollar ring as anything other than a gift meant in some way to atone for his sin against his wife.

But will the apology and the ring do it? Surely all of us who have sinned would like for God and our fellow human beings to forgive us and to let us move on. But it’s not always that simple or easy. Kobe Bryant has committed a sin against trust, and one of the things about trust is that, when it is broken, it is hard to restore. I expect that there are some unavoidable long-term effects of his breach of faith. His wife may be sincere in forgiving him, but that does not mean the whole thing is over.

When Israel rebelled against the LORD and rejected His purpose for them, Moses interceded, and pardon was granted. But pardon did not mean no consequences. There was chastising punishment to be borne. But Israel, rather than submitting, rebelled further by an act of presumption, thinking they could take the pardon and avoid the consequences.

All these things were written for our learning, so let us as the spiritual heirs of these people and now the true Israel of God, take to heart the lessons of this incident.

I. PARDON

When the LORD said he was ready to destroy unbelieving, rebellious Israel and to fulfill His covenant promise to Abraham by starting over with Moses, Moses started to pray for pardon. This was the thing that Moses should have done, for his role as Leader of God’s people involved his being the Mediator between God and them, and His role as Mediator involved his being an Intercessor with God for them.

In the face of such unbelief and rebellion, which the LORD called "despising me," there was nothing Moses could say on behalf of the people in his intercession. He concentrates entirely on the LORD and on reasons the LORD, for the LORD’s sake, should spare the people. He uses two arguments, the LORD’s honor and the LORD’s character.

Moses appealed to the LORD’s honor by pointing out what the nations would likely think if the LORD destroyed His people in the wilderness. The Egyptians had seen and the nations of Canaan had heard of all the LORD had done for Israel. He had sent mighty plagues on Egypt in order to deliver His people from slavery. He had opened up the Red Sea so His people could cross and had used that same sea to destroy the Egyptian army. These things all testified to the great power of the LORD. Also, people knew that Israel was special – they were the LORD’s people, for the LORD lived among them and revealed His glory by the cloud that hovered over the camp by day and night. Now, if the Egyptians and other nations heard that the people of Israel came to extinction in the wilderness, what would they conclude? They would conclude that the LORD had reached the limits of His power for His special people, and, since He could not give them the land He had promised, had decided to destroy them. Of course, we might say that the nations had no right to come to such a conclusion. But Moses is right about how the nations will likely reason, and He appeals to the LORD not to do something that would give the nations occasion to think less of Him. Moses is something like the wife saying to her husband, "I know the kids have forfeited any right to go to Disney World, but you have said publicly that you are taking your family to Disney World. What will people think if you don’t – that you are not a man of our word? that you have gone broke? Take them for the sake of Your reputation."

Then Moses appealed to the LORD’s character as the LORD Himself had made it know to Moses at Mt. Sinai. The LORD has declared that that He is "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression." It is also true the LORD is just, "visiting the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." But Moses appeals to the steadfast love of the LORD that has led Him to forgive them over and again despite their repeated sins and provocations. It is not in any way Israel’s goodness or deserving, but only the LORD’s commitment to love and be faithful to His people that will gain His forgiveness of His people. And it will take an exercise of the LORD’s power, power in which, in a sense, God causes His mercy to triumph over His justice. You know from experience that it takes more power to forgive those who offend you than to crush them. On the basis of all this Moses pleads for pardon – that the LORD may not give His people what they deserve, extinction, but may spare them. And the LORD granted Moses request: "I have pardoned, according to your word."

>From all this let us learn that it is not only proper but powerful to give God reasons to answer our prayers, and that no reasons are more powerful than those based on God Himself. We, too, can plead with God to be merciful to us as individuals, families, and as His congregation, on the basis that He had received us and that the world knows we are His people and on the basis that He has revealed Himself in Christ as the God who is loving and forgiving.

But let us never forget that the basis on which we can plead for pardon and receive it is because of what Christ did for us on the cross. There is no greater display of the love of God or the almighty power of God than at the cross where God Himself provided the atonement by which our sins are covered – where God Himself visited His justice upon His Son that He might visit us with His mercy. And let us never forget that we have a better Mediator than Moses. It is Christ Himself who is our Mediator and who not only asks for but secures mercy for us on the basis of His finished and complete work on the cross.

II. PUNISHMENT

The pardon of Israel’s sins is followed by the announcement of their punishment. There are punishments, one for the mass of the people, and one for the ten spies whose report had provoked the rebellion of the people.

The punishment for the people is that they will not live in the Promised Land. The LORD is very serious about this and emphasizes the finality of this decision. We have seen before how the LORD, to speak in human terms, can decide not to go through with something He has threatened. In this very incident Moses, as it were, talks the LORD out of destroying the people and starting over. But on this matter of not entering the land, the LORD swears by His own existence ("surely as I live") and by the certainty that His glory will fill the whole earth. He further underscores His intention by saying, "I, the LORD have spoken," and "Surely all this I will do." The decision that they will not see the land is firm and will not be reversed.

The LORD specifies their sins so that they will know why they are being punished. These are the people who have seen the glory of the LORD in all the miracles He did to save them from slavery. Despite all they had witnessed, yet they tested the LORD ten times – that is, repeatedly and chronically. By rejecting the LORD’s purpose to give them Canaan, they despised the LORD. They have grumbled against the LORD over and over again. They had gathered themselves against the LORD, treating Him as an enemy and trying to overcome Him. Beneath all these sins is unbelief, the failure to trust in the LORD no matter how much they saw of His power, faithfulness, reliability, and goodwill. This is not an occasional or even a repeat of failure; it is a chronic condition of not trusting and not submitting. They are unlike Caleb, who has a different spirit. Caleb was not overcome by fear and did not rebel against the LORD, because he was confident that the LORD would keep His promises and that the LORD had the power to do just that.

We must not forget that the writer of Hebrews uses Israel’s failure to enter the Promised Land to warn us. The did not get to go to Canaan and find rest from their hardships and enemies because of unbelief. They did not hear God’s Word to them with faith. We are on the way to a Promised Land far greater than Canaan, a land where we will rest forever from sin, and suffering, and sadness, and death. For now there may be many hardships to face, but we must keep going in the life of faith, and we must encourage each other to keep going, for it is by faithful faith that we will arrive at last at the eternal Sabbath rest of the people of God.

The actual punishment for the mass of the people parallels their words when they rebelled against the LORD’s purpose to take them into the Promised Land. They had said they would rather have died in the wilderness than go up against the giants in the land. So it shall be they shall die in the wilderness. Everyone who was older than twenty, who would have been the soldiers in the conquest of Canaan, will die in the wilderness. The LORD is very graphic in describing what will happen. He emphasizes that their dead bodies, their corpses, will fall in the wilderness. This will occur to all of them – all who were counted in the census.

Their children would enter the land, but their children, too, would suffer because of the sin of their parents. Remember the principle of community and generational solidarity in the Bible. The older generation will have an impact on the younger. In this case the children will live in the wilderness for forty years – one year for every day the spies spent exploring the land. Both generations will live under the displeasure of the LORD, the older till they have all died, the younger until forty years have passed.

The judgment for the ten fit their sin. They had spoken evil of the good land the LORD promised them and incited the whole congregation to unbelieving grumbling. All ten died before the LORD of a plague.

This might puzzle us, for we think, "If God has pardoned their sins, why is He going to punish His people?" The simple explanation is this: God can forgive the sins of His people, and fully restore their relationship privileges, yet at the same time for their good discipline us. We can know He is our Father, and that we are His children, and that He loves us and accepts us even as we experience hard and painful providences. It is as we may treat our children. They misbehave and we correct them and they acknowledge the wrong and ask forgiveness, yet we may judge that they still must have a spanking or be denied the privilege of playing with their video games. They are forgiven and loved. We have nothing more against them, but still they must undergo their discipline. So sometimes there is lingering discipline for us.

As I say, that is the simple and true explanation. But we cannot apply this answer simplistically. Two things complicate our understanding. First, the LORD is not what we call "consistent" in His discipline. More often than we perhaps realize, we sin against the LORD, and confess our sins, and He not only are forgives and restores us , but also gives no further discipline. The LORD is very gracious and forbearing with us. "He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103: 10). Other times He in His fatherly wisdom decides it is for our good to be disciplined. Second, while all hardship we experience is discipline, not all is in response to our sins. A football coach may make a player run laps because he is punishing him for missing an assignment, or he may make him do the same thing for conditioning. So we cannot always be sure what is going on in our lives, and, surely, we must be slow to assume we know what is going on in another’s life.

The point for now, is that we must not be surprised when there is fatherly discipline, and we must not doubt His love when it comes. He loves us more than we know. It is wise and for our good to trust His fatherly wisdom.

III. PRESUMPTION

The response of Israel to the punishment is surprising, or, perhaps, not. The acted in high presumption against the LORD. Though through fear they had not wanted to go to the Promised Land, when they heard they would not be allowed to go, they were bitterly disappointed. The whole point of being rescued from Egypt and led through the wilderness was that they would at last arrive at a land which they could call their own and where they could settle. The journey had a purpose and a destination. But now the journey came to a standstill. They were instructed to turn around and head back into the wilderness. They mourned greatly over what they had lost.

And they hoped that somehow there might be another chance. They determined that, rather than turning around and going back, as the LORD had instructed, they would, rather, now do what they had before refused to do. They would go up to the land. They say, "Here we are. We will go up to the land that the LORD has promised, for we have sinned." This is surely true to human nature. We want to believe that any decision can be reversed and any consequence avoided. We are like a teenager, who, after talking disrespectfully to her mother, is told she cannot go to the basketball game, but is sure there is some way this can be changed and determines that she will change it – that one way or another she will get to that game.

Moses tried to stop them. He warned them that the LORD would not be with them. The LORD would be with them in the camp where He had promised to live in the midst of them. But He would not go up with them to the land, for they had before refused to go, trusting Him, and now He had withdrawn the promise of the land, as chastisement. Moreover, there were, as the spies had reported, people who were settled in the land and would not be willingly displaced. With the LORD they could have, as Caleb had testified, taken the land. But without the LORD they were not able. They would be defeated.

But they again refused to listen to Moses and to accept the LORD’s discipline. Stubbornly they went ahead. The ark of the LORD, which traveled ahead of the people when they traveled, symbolizing, that the LORD was leading them and going before them to prepare the way, did not go with them. Neither did Moses, who was leader and the mediator between them and God, go. They went on their own, without the LORD and without Moses.

Predictably, what they had predicted would happen to them, though the LORD had promised to go with them, happened when they went on their own without the LORD. The people they encountered came down from the hill country and defeated the. To their further humiliation, once they began to retreat, they were pursued by their enemies. They ran for their lives and still suffered great loss of life. Such is the end of their presumption, refusing to submit to the LORD’s discipline.

The writer of Hebrews, who warns us against unbelief, also tells us how to handle the discipline of the LORD when it comes. "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" (Hebrews 12:5,6). He does not discipline arbitrarily or impulsively. He know what He is doing. His purpose is good – that we may share in his holiness and produce the fruit of righteousness in our lives.

Let us rejoice in the reality of God’s pardon of all our sins. No matter how grievously we have sinned, no matter how frequently, no matter how we have offended Him, damaged others, and harmed ourselves, He will forgive and restore when we come depending on the mediation of His Son, Jesus Christ.

And, when in His wisdom, He disciplines, let us not pout or become angry or discouraged. Rather let us submit to Him so long as we walk in this world. At last we shall enter the heavenly Canaan, where we will no longer sin, but, as pardoned and perfected sinners, know God’s perfect peace, rest, and joy.

Old Testament Reading: Numbers 14: 13-45, Hebrews 4: 1-11

WILLIAM SMITH
WESTMINSTER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA, USA

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